Anthropology / Book Review

Vol. 3, NO. 3 / November 2017

Great Scott

George Scialabba

Letters to the Editors

In response to “Great Scott

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States
by James Scott
Yale University Press, 312 pp., USD$26.

A  Whiggish history is a narrative of social or intellectual progress whose terminus is more or less the social or intellectual location of that history’s narrator. For obvious reasons, Whiggish histories should be regarded with a measure of suspicion. Not all of them, of course, are self-serving or deluded. The history of science, in most versions, is a narrative of progress, and rightly so. Notwithstanding its exploitation in all too many destructive technologies, the edifice of scientific thought, eliciting near-universal and uncoerced assent, remains one of humankind’s few unambiguous cultural triumphs.

Political history is another matter. Narratives that celebrate “British liberties broadening down the years from precedent to precedent” (the original Whiggish history), or the American discovery and peopling of a virgin land from sea to shining sea, or virtually every nation’s exceptionalist account of its unique mission and destiny, all leave out a great many inconvenient facts and therefore, intentionally or not, serve partisan purposes. Academic social scientists have in recent decades become very sensitive to the ideological work done or attempted by such historical accounts, to the point that the exposure and denunciation of hegemonic master narratives that privilege someone or other has begun to seem routine. There is, however, nothing routine about the work of political scientist James Scott.

In a series of remarkable books beginning with The Moral Economy of the Peasant (1976), Scott has written a history of the civilizing process from the outside, from the point of view of its objects, variously savages, barbarians, primitives, raw, wild, and other names suggestive of people still awaiting their entry into history and full membership in humanity. His best-known and most influential work, Seeing Like a State (1998), surveyed a number of ambitious civilizing projects, including forest monoculture in nineteenth-century Germany, Soviet collectivization, high modernist city planning, and compulsory villagization in Tanzania. All of them sought to impose a particular vision of order: simplified, scaled up, predictable, measurable, legible—in a word, governable. The forms of life and culture they proposed to improve out of existence—old-growth forests; traditional, mixed-use working-class neighborhoods; peasant communes and customs; the improvisational subsistence strategies of indigenous Africans—were hardly beyond improving. But each had its own functional wisdom, and each resisted, in its own way, the reformers’ attempt to conscript them into more easily administered, bureaucratically convenient formations.

Scott devoted part of his career to anthropological fieldwork, studying peasant politics in Southeast Asia. Weapons of the Weak (1985) dwelt on the small, cunning acts of insubordination and resistance short of explicit rebellion—

the surreptitious expansion of private plots, the withdrawal of labor from state enterprises for household production, the failure to deliver grain and livestock to the state, the “appropriation” of state credits and resources by households and work teams, and the steady growth of the black market1

—by which peasants, tenant farmers, and other subaltern groups in a Malay village coped with a system they were not strong enough to challenge outright. The Art of Not Being Governed (2009) broadened this focus, chronicling the centuries-long struggles of the region’s hill peoples to avoid incorporation in the lowland political units determined to capture them as subjects. The book took aim at the “official story most civilizations tell about themselves”—and that many, perhaps most, social scientists subscribe to—according to which “a backward, naïve, and perhaps barbaric people are gradually incorporated into an advanced, superior, and more prosperous society and culture.” On the contrary, Scott argued:

Most, if not all, the characteristics that appear to stigmatize hill peoples—their location at the margins, their physical mobility, their swidden [slash-and-burn] agriculture, their flexible social structure, their religious heterodoxy, their egalitarianism, and even the nonliterate, oral cultures—far from being the mark of primitives left behind by civilization, are better seen on a long view as adaptations designed to evade both state capture and state formation. They are, in other words, political adaptations of nonstate peoples to a world of states that are, at once, attractive and threatening.2

The essence of the civilizing process, on this view, is the extension of state power: the relocation of barbarians from “nonstate spaces where they were generally more autonomous (and healthy!) to places where their labor could be appropriated.”3

Scott is a part-time farmer and founder of Yale’s agrarian studies program. Invited to give some prestigious lectures, he decided to delve into recent scholarship on the origins of agrarianism. To his surprise, he found that his anarchist perspective holds true back to the farthest reaches of prehistory. The standard view—not implausible given the paucity of available evidence until recent developments in radioactive dating, paleobotany, paleogenetics, microbial biology, parasitology, and other disciplines were pressed into service by archaeologists—has been that plant and animal domestication was followed in rapid sequence by population increase, sedentism, and state formation. It was a dramatic narrative, with clear causal links: technological change made possible a new way of life more like our own, which we naturally regarded as progress and therefore assumed that our Neolithic ancestors must also have regarded as desirable and willingly embraced. In fact, however, it appears that a gap of approximately four thousand years separates the domestication of the main cereal grains and the rise of the first enduring states. What were our ancestors up to in those millennia? This, roughly, is the question Scott sets out to answer in Against the Grain.

Domestication, it turns out, was a decidedly mixed blessing for humans. Judging from fossils, cereal-based diets were associated with shorter stature, bone distress, iron-deficiency anemia, and other deficits. The domus—the module including house and outbuildings, livestock yards, gardens, etc.—attracted hordes of commensals: not only dogs, pigs, and other mammals but also rodents, sparrows, insects, and weeds, as well as all their associated parasites and disease organisms, for which the domus was an ideal environment. A loss of alertness and emotional reactivity—the invariable result of animal domestication—may have similarly occurred among human domus-dwellers. And so labor-intensive was life in the domus that, Scott writes, “if we squint at the matter from a slightly different angle, one could argue that it is we who have been domesticated.”4

Hunting and foraging, by contrast, was a significantly healthier lifestyle. “Nomads,” one historian writes, “were in general much better fed and led easier, longer lives than the inhabitants of the large agricultural states.”5 Drawing subsistence from several food webs—fish and shellfish, game and birds, wild grains, roots, and tubers, fruits, berries, and nuts—not only allowed a more varied diet, it also made for greater food security. Mobile, skilled, and relatively leisured, hunter-gatherers and pastoralists had good reasons to resist domestication. Even apart from its dietary and medical disadvantages, life in the domus seems to have introduced drudgery into human history. The routines of plowing, harrowing, sowing, weeding, watering, fertilizing, harvesting, bundling, threshing, gleaning, winnowing, drying, sorting, and storing, all on a fixed timetable, year in and year out, could hardly have attracted most free-living Neolithics into the domus. It represented a drastic de-skilling, as Scott observes:

It is no exaggeration to say that hunting and foraging are, in terms of complexity, as different from cereal-grain farming as cereal grain farming is, in turn, removed from repetitive work on a modern assembly line.6

Why, then, did anyone submit to it? The reasons are unclear. Some researchers believe that, in alluvial Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, one of the regions where agriculture first flourished, population pressures may have played a role. The Younger Dryas ice age from 10,500 to 9,600 BCE was followed by a warmer, wetter period that may have spurred population growth and competition for game and forage, resulting in more intensive agriculture and animal husbandry. Scott is skeptical, pointing to current estimates that the earth’s population grew from only 4 to 5 million in the five millennia between 10,000 and 5,000 BCE—a nearly infinitesimal rate of increase. On the other hand, fewer large animal bones appear in archaeological records of the period, suggesting that overhunting may have forced a turn to sedentism. It’s also possible that much early agriculture was flood-retreat farming, using the fertile silt deposited by river flooding. Flood-retreat farming is considerably less demanding than dry-land farming.

The epidemiology of the domus (which Scott also calls the “late-Neolithic multispecies resettlement camp,”7 a name suggestive of the crowding and casual mingling readily exploited by disease vectors) may have been one cause of slow population growth in the early Neolithic. Later, as written records begin to appear, evidence of epidemics is frequent. So well adapted was the late-Neolothic multispecies resettlement camp to disease transmission that virtually all the human infectious diseases caused by microorganisms seem to have originated within the last ten thousand years. Like drudgery, infectious diseases are a civilizational effect.

Crops were also vulnerable. Fixed-field agriculture, with only a few main cereal grains planted contiguously and for many years in succession, was an ideal environment for pests, fungi, and microorganisms. Drought and flooding also menaced sedentary populations disproportionately in comparison with their more mobile contemporaries, who relied on several food webs. “How, despite its fragility, the domus module of fixed-field agriculture became a hegemonic, agro-ecological and demographic bulldozer that transformed much of the world in its image is something of a miracle.”8

Part of the explanation may be differential rates of acquiring immunity. The sedentary populations who were hit earlier and harder by infectious diseases may, by the same token, have developed immunity sooner, while the increasing frequency of trade may have transmitted them to hunter-gatherers whose lower population density meant the diseases did not become endemic. But the main reason agriculture came to predominate is probably a difference in fertility rates. It appears certain from studies of present-day hunter-gatherers that their fertility rates are lower than those of sedentary populations. (Apparently the phenomenon of increased fertility holds for domesticated animals as well.) Mobility requires that births be spaced out, and child labor is exploitable earlier in the domus than in the wild.

In any case, Scott emphasizes, the transformation was gradual. Agriculture, irrigation, towns, and trade coexisted for millennia with hunters, foragers, and pastoralists; in fact, the former regularly melted back into the latter in the face of floods, droughts, epidemics, raids, invasions, and other disruptions to the domus. Most early towns were near wetlands, which allowed their inhabitants access to non-farming food webs as well as to water transport, which alone allowed trade in bulk goods. But, perhaps counterintuitively, such marshland and delta settlements did not develop into states. Neither the Nile nor the Yellow River delta, Scott points out, was the site of early state formation. States, in the first instance, were the product not of abundance but of scarcity.

“State formation becomes possible only when there are few alternatives to a diet dominated by grains.”9 What appears to have eliminated those alternatives was climate change. Between 3,500 and 2,500 BCE sea levels fell, probably resulting in a decline in river volumes as well. The population therefore concentrated in water-rich areas, where their numbers made possible large-scale irrigation as a response to increased aridity. The association of grains with states has to do with their unique suitability from the point of view of the tax collector; for, as Scott never tires of reminding us, taxes are—at least from the point of view of the cultivator—practically synonymous with civilization. Compared with beans, legumes, and root crops, grains are more visible (they grow above ground); their growing season is predictable; they ripen at the same time; they must be promptly harvested (hence farmers cannot conceal part of the harvest before the tax collector arrives to supervise); grains being small and regular in size, they can be more easily measured, recorded, and divided; and their higher caloric value per unit of weight makes them worth the trouble (considerable at this epoch, and even much later, in the case of ground transport) of transporting to the state’s granaries. This appears to be the agro-ecology of the first states: Uruk and Ur in Mesopotamia in the late third millennium BCE and the Chinese rice states in the Yangtze and Yellow River basins much later.

The human ecology of the early states was simple: collect people, organize them around the grain-producing core, and keep them from escaping. Wall building is as characteristic of early states as armies, and both were aimed as much at penning the population in as defending it against outsiders.10 Mass flight in response to epidemics, crop failure, or burdensome taxation was a constant danger, and one reason population control was so crucial was that so many state-dwellers were slaves.

Slavery was utterly central to the formation of early states.11 Those states were “population machines, seeking to maximize their manpower base by all possible means.”12 The usual means were purchase and capture. The slave trade did not create a global market until Roman Imperial times, but slaves were the principal spoils of war in the Mesopotamian polities—territorial expansion was relatively unimportant. The forced relocation of entire defeated populations was common. Female captives of reproductive age were especially prized, given high Neolithic mortality rates, while women were most of the workforce in the huge textile workshops that provided many early states’ principal trade goods. And a slave proletariat performing the most dangerous and brutal tasks—mining, quarrying, logging, rowing galleys—served as a political buffer, relieving native subjects from pressures which might have provoked revolt.

Armies and captive populations (along with their livestock) were prime disease vectors, which is one reason why, even once the first states had been established, they were notably fragile and impermanent. Another disease route was the expansion of trade; the new state elites sought to exchange grain and textile surpluses for status goods, and trading vessels also carried pests and parasites. Since the causes of the resulting epidemics were at that time mysterious, and since they often left no skeletal traces, their presence in the archaeological record is somewhat spectral. But the frequent, unexplained collapse or abandonment of early states is a striking fact.

Other, more tangible causes of state mortality included deforestation and salinization. States meant public works, which meant bricks, plaster, and metals, all of which required large amounts of fuel, i.e., wood. Because early states tended to be on watercourses, the wood came from river-, stream-, or lake-side, which resulted, as the trees disappeared, in more frequent flooding and mudslides. Increased salinity from irrigated water would have damaged grain crops, especially wheat. Complaints in ancient records about brackish water testify to a frequent problem, whose causes must have seemed obscure.

Disease, famine, drudgery, bondage—this, it appears, is what the birth of states meant for the majority of their inhabitants. In that case, Scott asks, “why deplore their collapse?” Why assume, as scholarly convention does, that their absence signifies a “dark age”? His answer—surprising only if one has not read Scott’s previous books—is mischievously double sided. On the one hand, the disappearance of states

deprives all those scholars and professionals whose mission it has been to document ancient civilizations of the raw materials they require. There are fewer important digs for archaeologists, fewer records and texts for historians, and fewer trinkets—large and small—to fill museum exhibits.13

On the other hand:

One must never confound culture with state centers or the apex of a court culture with its broader foundations. Above all, the well-being of a population must never be confounded with the power of a court or state center. It is not uncommon for the subjects of early states to leave both agriculture and urban centers to evade taxes, conscription, epidemics, and oppression. From one perspective they may be seen to have regressed to more rudimentary forms of subsistence, such as foraging or pastoralism. But from another, and I believe broader, perspective, they may well have avoided labor and grain taxes, escaped an epidemic, traded an oppressive serfdom for greater freedom and physical mobility, and perhaps avoided death in combat. The abandonment of the state may, in such cases, be experienced as an emancipation.14

Compared with the burdens imposed by state hierarchies, the dispersal of their populations may well have “usher[ed] in a modest degree of egalitarianism.”15 And considering that the so-called Dark Age of Greece—the period from 1100 to 700 BCE following the collapse of Mycenaean civilization—produced an oral culture including the Iliad and Odyssey, they may even have fostered a “diversity of cultural production.”16 Whether the rise of states was a step toward or away from a humane and democratic ethos is an open question.

Until the threshold of modernity—Scott puts the date around 1600 CE—most of humanity lived outside states. The generic name for these nonstate peoples was barbarians. According to the standard civilizational narrative, the exchange of barbarian for civilized status was a great gain, an entry into culture, leisure, security, and abundance. Scott’s life work suggests, persuasively, that this narrative is perhaps the mother of all Whiggish histories. By now, the long struggle is over; the predominance of states is irreversible, and no one pretends otherwise. But domination within and among states is not inevitable, at any rate as long as Scott’s salutary skepticism is attended to.


  1. James Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985), 303. 
  2. James Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 8, 9. 
  3. Ibid., 10. 
  4. James Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 87. 
  5. Christopher Beckwith, Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 76. To much the same point, see also Marshall Sahlins, “The Original Affluent Society,” in Stone Age Economics (Chicago, IL: Aldine-Atherton, 1972), 1–40; David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004), 222ff.; Yuval Noah Harari, “History’s Biggest Fraud,” in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), 77–97. 
  6. James Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 90. 
  7. Ibid., 18. 
  8. Ibid., 113. 
  9. Ibid., 22. 
  10. Scott frequently cites the observation of Asia scholar Owen Lattimore that the Great Wall of China was built as much to keep those inside in as to keep those outside out. Ibid., 30. 
  11. Cf. Moses Finley: “The pre-Greek world—the world of the Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Assyrians …—was, in a very profound sense, a world without free men.” Quoted in ibid., 157. 
  12. Ibid., 166. 
  13. Ibid., 209. 
  14. Ibid., 210–11. 
  15. Ibid., 217. 
  16. Ibid., 217. 

George Scialabba is a contributing editor of the online art and literary magazine The Baffler.

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